Tiruchi’s R. R. Sabha, which turns 100 this year, has been fostering the cause of charity and culture.

In 1915 at the Trichinopoly Collector’s bungalow, Sheridan’s play ‘Pizzaro’ was enacted in aid of the Ladies’ War Fund. The predominantly British audience was amazed at the excellent diction of the all Tamil cast. In 1918, two plays were staged as part of the peace celebrations organised by the Carnatic Infantry. In 1918, “At Home” was given to Mr. Blackstone, Deputy Superintendent of Police and the same drama troupe presented a few plays. The troupe staged benefit shows to raise funds for the Manicka Vinayakar temple.

The theatre enthusiasts, munificent in their contributions to charitable causes, were all members of the Rasika Ranjana Sabha (RRS), Tiruchi. RRS was inaugurated at a meeting held in the Tiruchi Fort Railway Museum, on November 9, 1914, with Kodiyalam Rangaswamy Iyengar as the first president. The membership fee was eight annas per month. To start with, the sabha had 25 members. Within a year, the number increased to 153.

Zamindar of Andipatti, Mc.T. Pethachi Chettiar, Dewan Bahadur T. Desikachariar, Advocate, and G.K. Rengil Doss were among the generous donors to the sabha in the early years.

The founder members were men of varied talents. S.S. Subramania Iyer, for instance, wrote two songs for the sabha, ‘Gandhi vakyam’ to be sung before the commencement of any programme, and mangalam to mark the conclusion. The first secretary of the sabha, F.G. Natesa Iyer, popularly known as FGN, belonged to the lineage of Appayya Dikshitar, and his grandfather and father were accomplished veena players.

FGN had a passion for drama. FGN’s reward for his first stage outing was a sound thrashing from his father, who disapproved of the stage! But that did not deter him. Later, when he took up employment in the Railways, he put up plays for his colleagues, and together with other theatre enthusiasts, he established the R.R. Sabha.

“He was such a good actor, that when my mother saw him stifle Desdemona to death in ‘Othello,’ she kept her distance from him for days!” recalls 96 year old Padma Swaminathan, daughter of FGN. FGN would travel to Bombay, Calcutta, Delhi, Lahore and Peshawar, to source props and dress material. All dresses were stitched by a dummy horse performer called Sundaram.

It was FGN who handpicked a handsome boy with an attractive voice to play the role of Lohidasan in R.R. Sabha’s play, ‘Harishchandra,’ in which FGN played the title role. Those were the days when there was no electricity connection and gas lights were used to produce stage effects. For the scene in which Lohidasan was bitten by a snake, FGN had all the lights on stage dimmed, with the focus kept on Lohidasan’s foot and on an impressive snake made of pith and coconut fibre, lurking in the bushes. Moving gas lights alternately illumined the snake and the boy’s foot - now the snake, now the foot, giving the impression of a snake about to strike. Then to a rising crescendo of music, the snake lunged forward and delivered its fatal bite. The boy’s mother who was in the audience fainted! The boy who stole the hearts of the audience as Lohidasan was none other than M.K.Tyagaraja Bhagavatar, who, even after he became a famous film star, would visit FGN to pay his respects to him.

Promoting talent

In its very first year, RRS staged 10 plays. The sabha’s stated objective was to foster the dramatic and literary talents of its members. Music was not mentioned. But concerts too were organised, at the Nootrukkal Mandapam, on the way to the Uchi Pillayar temple. Dramas were staged at Thevar Hall, The Railway Institute, or the Collector’s bungalow.

The sabha was formally registered only in 1931. In 1934, the foundation stone for an auditorium named Natana Mahal, was laid by the then collector G.H. Cooke, on land leased from the Municipality. Despite the grandiose name, the ‘auditorium’ was nothing more than a tin shack, where rehearsals took place. Plays continued to be staged elsewhere.

It was only in 1976, that the present building was built, largely through the efforts of L.Venkatrama Iyer, a lawyer in Tiruchi. Venkatrama Iyer would tell many of his rich clients that he didn’t want any fees, and that whatever they intended to pay him could be donated instead to RRS. He thus helped raise funds for building an auditorium. He also persuaded the Municipality to sell the land to the sabha.

The tours began as early as 1918, when the troupe travelled to Madurai, and staged their plays for two days in the Narthana Gana Sabha. The Raja of Ramnad was present for the first show with his entire entourage. The expenses incurred for the trip were Rs 435, but the collections were Rs. 841 rupees, making the trip profitable.

Gate collections for dramas were always excellent. For Major Sundarrajan’s ‘Tiger Thathachari,’ for example, the troupe was paid Rs. 800, but the collection was three times of that. The plays of Sivaji, Major and R.S. Manohar drew such huge crowds, that they were staged in the open air auditorium of National High School, or that of Bishop Heber College, or the Jail maidan.

In 1973, when Major was half way through his play, the skies opened up, and the organisers had to find an alternative venue. “We managed to get permission to continue the play in Sitalakshmi Ramaswamy College,” recalls N. Sekar, who has been Secretary of the sabha since 1998. “But despite the interruption, the audience stayed till the end. Even today, dramas draw bigger crowds than kutcheris,” observes Sekar.

The practice of the sabha taking its plays on tour continued for many years. Sekar talks of how once the car in which they were travelling to Pollachi broke down in the middle of nowhere. The only alternative transport they managed to find was a truck transporting fish! They clambered in and arrived in Pollachi, reeking of fish, and did two shows back to back, without even a bath, for there was no time for one!

“The sabha used to have a drama contest. We now have a week-long drama festival instead. We have organised thematic events such as a Kerala or Karnataka festival. We celebrated the 150th aradhana of Tyagaraja, by organising concerts in 150 cities. It is believed that Tyagaraja stayed in 86, South Chitra Street in Srirangam, when he visited the town. So we organised the first concert there.”

To encourage aspiring young musicians, the sabha has many contests and confers the title of Sangeetha Sri on the best vocalist in the senior category. Children from the U.S. have won prizes a few times in recent years. The L.V. (L.Venkatrama Iyer ) Memorial Prize is given to the best junior vocalist. In memory of FGN, an award is given to a Tiruchi-based person who has contributed to drama, music, dance or literature.

This year, the RRS completes 100 years and the 100 programmes planned by Sekar that began on April 2013, will go on till the anniversary day, and includes concerts, dramas, religious discourses and puppet shows from different States.